Been Through the Storm.

In October of 2012, a tropical storm gathered strength while in the Caribbean Sea, forming into a hurricane. The storm continued to grow in both intensity and size, reaching a diameter of over nine hundred miles. After sweeping across the islands of the Caribbean and Bermuda, it traveled up the eastern coast of the United States before making landfall in New Jersey. With 80-mile per hour sustained winds and 100-mile per hour gusts, it dropped almost 12 inches of rain at its peak. For many of the coastal communities in the state, the most damage was caused by the storm surge. Storm surge is a rise in sea levels caused by atmospheric pressure changes. The storm surge at high tide for many New Jersey communities was 14 feet above sea level. After the storm ended, the cleanup would cost almost $40 billion dollars (via Wikipedia). Almost six years later, the rebuilding in my home state continues. Much of this was on my mind as I traveled to visit a historic location still struggling with the after-effects of the superstorm.

Sandy Hook is a barrier split (essentially, a strip of sand) that extends from the New Jersey mainland into the Atlantic Ocean and New York Bay. It has long been a navigational landmark for ships approaching New York harbor, and it is home to the oldest lighthouse in the United States. Because of its location, it has also had a significant role as an important position in the defense of New York City. Indeed, a military base in Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock, was tasked with defending against hostile ships attempting to invade New York. As times changed and the largest military threat was nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, Sandy Hook housed a battery of missiles which would be tasked with shooting Soviet weapons out of the sky before they could reach their target. Decommissioned as a base in 1974, Sandy Hook is now a national park, overseen by the National Park Service. Part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, Sandy Hook is open to the public. On an overcast day in late July, I set off to learn more about this historic site. Along the way, I saw the ways that the park continues to attempt to recover from the hurricane of 2012.

Map of New Jersey, with a red pin in the location of Sandy Hook.
Sandy Hook, my destination for a gray and overcast day in July.
View of bridge through car windshield. The ocean is in the distance.
As you crest the top of the causeway into Sandy Hook, the vast Atlantic Ocean comes into view.
2012 Honda Accord in front of Sandy Hook Lighthouse
My first destination within the park: Sandy Hook Light.
View of Sandy Hook Light.
Sandy Hook Light, built in 1764, is the oldest lighthouse in the United States. It is still in use as a navigational aid into New York Bay. The lighthouse keeper’s house (foreground) serves as a museum about the lighthouse. Since Hurricane Sandy it also serves as the park’s Visitor Center, as the original visitor center was severely damaged in the storm and has not yet been restored.
3D map of New Jersey, with small models of lighthouses.
Tours of the lighthouse are scheduled every 30 minutes. I had just missed the previous tour, so I spent some time in the museum. This 3D map features locations of lighthouses in New Jersey and Delaware. The right-most lighthouse in the picture is the Cape May Lighthouse, which I climbed a few years ago.
Upward view of stairs in the lighthouse.
Unlike other lighthouses I have visited, the tours of Sandy Hook Light are guided by a park ranger. The 95 steps to the top (along with a 9-rung ladder to the cupola that holds the light itself) were manageable, even for someone as heights-averse as I am.
View of a window looking out at Sandy Hook.
Sandy Hook Light was built to last- look how thick the walls are! Through the window, you can see some of the structures of Fort Hancock that still stand.
View of Fort Hancock from the top of the lighthouse.
Once at the top, the view was spectacular. The buildings pictured are part of Fort Hancock. Some of the buildings that have been restored are used by National Park Service employees.
Closeup of fresnel lens of lighthouse.
Unlike other lighthouses I have visited, at Sandy Hook you can stand directly beside the light. The design of this fresnel lens allows a relatively small light to be visible at great distances.
View of lighthouse stairs facing down. A man's shoes are in the foreground.
According to the park ranger, the original stairs were made from wood and rather rickety. These metal stairs were far more sturdy.
Rope railing beside the stairs of the lighthouse.
The rope railing was one of the more unique features of the lighthouse.
Two large, three story buildings. A large lawn surrounds each one.
After my tour of the lighthouse, I decided to wander the grounds. Construction of the base that would become Fort Hancock began in 1857. It was in continuous use by the US Army until 1974. During WWII, when many of the residential buildings were constructed, it was used as a mobilization center for training new recruits. 
Building with tattered sign in foreground. The lighthouse is in the background.
This is the Post Exchange (or PX), where soldiers could buy clothes, snacks, books, or other personal items. There was also a four-lane bowling alley in the basement.
Three two-story houses in a row.
“Sergeant’s Row.” During WWII, non-commissioned officers lived in these houses. They are now used by National Park Service staff members.
Abandoned house from Officer's Row. It's windows are covered with wood and braces hold up the porches.
Officer’s Row, which faces Sandy Hook Bay. These buildings took the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, and most of them are in desperate need of repairs.
Crumbling brickwork of the porch.
The power of the ocean – the porches on many of these buildings were ravaged by the flood waters.
Broken railing on porch.
With a storm surge of 9 feet on Sandy Hook, the first floors of many of these buildings were underwater.
Boarded-up window on 3rd floor of house.
Lacking sufficient funds to repair all of the buildings, the National Park Service has to leave many of them in their current condition and use their limited resources as well as they can. I spoke with one park ranger who said that there have been some recent, promising efforts to work with private investors to repair these buildings.
8" Rodman gun on chassis in front of bay.
This 8″ Rodman gun, used for coastal defense, has guarded Fort Hancock since the Civil War.
Two story home with a red, white, and blue flag on the porch that says OPEN.
One building on Officer’s Row has been restored: the History House. This is how the house would have appeared in 1942.
Child's bedroom with two beds. Toys are on the floor.
The History House is designed to look as it would have seventy years ago, when it was the residence of a US Army officer and his family.
Countertop in kitchen, with old mixer and blender.
I enjoyed the attention to detail that was given to stocking the History House with items from the 1940s. Mixers (center) and blenders (right) have certainly come a long way.
Items on countertop include jars, kitchen implements, and coke bottles.
My grandmother kept many of the items from when she first married my grandfather. Looking through the kitchen in the History House, I felt like I was back in my grandmom’s home.
WWI Proporganda poster. A solidier is holding a book while an enlisted sailor is reading. The poster says HEY FELLOWS! YOUR MONEY BRINGS THE BOOK WE NEED WHEN WE WANT IT - AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION
There were even some items from World War I, such as this propaganda poster from the American Library Association.
2012 Honda Accord in front of abandoned concrete structure.
Further away from the main base are the gun batteries, built when the base was designed to rain artillery shells on enemy ships approaching New York. This is the remains of Battery Granger, built in 1898 to house two 10″ cannons.
Stone entrance to Battery Potter, with the fortifications behind it.
This is the entrance to Battery Potter, which originally held two 12″ guns.
Panorama of Nine Gun Battery.
The remains of Nine Gun Battery. At almost 1300 feet in length, it is the largest gun battery in the fort.
Remains of Nine Gun Battery. A red sign in the foreground says DANGER AREA CLOSED.
Despite the decaying conditions of Nine Gun Battery and numerous warning signs, I saw several people climb over the fences to take selfies amidst the rubble.
Rusty staircase in front of stone and brick wall.
I could care less about a selfie- I was far more interested in the decaying architecture of the fort.
Blue door in stone wall. A sign painted on the wall says CLOSED AREA DO NOT ENTER.
I was also fascinated by the parts of the fort that seemed immune to the effects of time.
View of Verrazano Bridge across the New York Bay.
Hiking behind the fort, I came to a small observation post where I had a view of New York Harbor. In the distance is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.
Skyline of New York across the New York Bay.
Despite the clouds and haze, you can still see the New York skyline from the observation post. If you look closely, you can see the Empire State Building on the left of the picture, and the Freedom Tower on the right.
Nike-Hercules Missile system display, with two missiles in the foreground, beside an American flag at half staff.
During the Cold War, Fort Hancock was home to a Nike-Hercules missile system. Designed to intercept Soviet jets carrying nuclear bombs and Soviet nuclear missiles, the system operated 24/7, keeping watch over New York and New Jersey.
Hercules missile on display beside a road.
Sandy Hook was one of 88 Nike-Hercules batteries around the country. The original launcher location on Fort Hancock was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, so the missiles are now on display further inland. The Hercules missile (pictured) was designed to intercept enemy nuclear missiles.
Ajax missile behind 2012 Honda Accord.
An Ajax missile, part of the Nike-Hercules system. The Ajax was designed to intercept enemy aircraft before they could release their payload on American cities. Thankfully, there was never a reason for the Nike-Hercules system to ever be used.
Nike-Hercules radar system.
While the launchers are badly damaged, the radar system for the missiles made it through the hurricane mostly unscathed. Volunteers, many of whom served on the missile batteries, are working to restore the radars so they can be opened to visitors.

Sandy Hook was an eye-opening trip. I was able to climb the oldest lighthouse in America, visited a historic military base, and also saw the ways that my home state continues to try to recover from a storm that many outside of New Jersey have long since forgotten. Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook is open every day from 5:00 am until 9:00 pm. The park itself is free, but during the summer season there is a $15 parking fee per vehicle (from November 1 until March 31, parking is free). If you are in northern New Jersey, I would highly encourage a visit to this historic park.

Thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!

‘Til next time.

6 thoughts on “Been Through the Storm.

  1. Wow, this is eye opening about the dangers of floodwaters and the damage they can cause. It’s hard to believe that storm was already nearly 6 years ago. I bet it would be expensive to rebuild some of that infrastructure. I’m jealous of all the cool lighthouses out your way – no such thing out here in the desert! I bet you were glad the rickety wooden stairs were replaced with sturdy metal ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am happy that I’ve gotten to see several lighthouses… actually, that would make an incredible road trip- driving to each lighthouse in the continental US. And yes, with my fear of heights, I’m glad for the non-see-through steps that replaced the old wooden ones!

      As for the floodwaters, I’m surprised some of the porches and buildings didn’t collapse already. They’re in very, very poor shape.


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